NEW PALESTINE — Every step of their return trip to Lucas Oil Stadium has carried a specific motivation for the top-ranked New Palestine Dragons.
The first, a 70-6 dismantling of Martinsville in the sectional semifinals, signified the beginning, the initial rung up an unfamiliar and uncharted Class 5A mountain.
The Dragons’ 24-14 sectional championship win at Stafford Field against Columbus East at long last exorcised the demons of 4A past as 1 vs. 2 clashed for a third straight year in the postseason.
The 49-21 manhandling of Zionsville in the regional proved a point. Doubted and downplayed for its weaker Hoosier Heritage Conference affiliation, New Palestine torched the notion and quieted the naysayers before tacking on an exclamation point at semistate 56-6.
Avoiding the ever-dangerous letdown in front of their home crowd at Kelso Stadium, the Dragons played a near perfect game against Castle, the giant killers responsible for upsetting No. 3 Bloomington South in the regional to set up last week’s semistate championship.
Now, with only No. 5 Fort Wayne Snider (12-1) standing between them and a second consecutive undefeated championship season, the Dragons (13-0) have one final item to cross off their repeat to-do list: Respect.
“It’s kind of unbelievable that, even now, there are a lot of people that still don’t respect us and what we do just because we haven’t been a perennial powerhouse program,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “While our long-scale success has been relatively recent, New Pal has had a great winning tradition. My job obviously was to build on that and take us where we’ve never been before. We’ve been fortunate to do that.
“I would like to see New Palestine get on that short list every year whenever people ask: Which teams in central Indiana do we need to watch out for? … I think our kids and staff deserve that recognition.”
A victory in today’s game (kickoff at 7:05 p.m.) against the Panthers will make it difficult for anyone to argue against Ralph’s wishes.
Winning the 4A state title a year ago in record-setting fashion by breaking or tying 17 state finals records, New Palestine finished a perfect 15-0. The achievement created a buzz, but despite a state-record 851 points scored, it brought with it questions of sustained longevity.
The Dragons carry the answer to those questions like a 10-ton chip on their shoulders. And every week, it grows larger.
“That’s been on our minds from the beginning. Getting there and eventually winning,” New Palestine senior quarterback Alex Neligh said. “I’m excited to get the opportunity to get back downtown. That’s where we kind of expected to end up this season, so it’s a good feeling for us — to get another shot at it.”
There’s no better venue for it then the home of the Indianapolis Colts, where New Palestine is 4-3 overall and has scored a combined 161 points in its past two appearances, including a school-record 84 points on Sept. 19.
Prolific on any surface, New Palestine, which leads the state in scoring average (61.0 points per game) and margin of victory (49.6), is 4-0 on artificial turf this season. Neligh amassed 448 yards in total offense and had a hand in six touchdowns against Pendleton Heights the last time he played under the retractable roof.
On the season, Neligh has rushed for 1,931 yards and 33 touchdowns. He’s passed for 2,351 yards and 32 scores. In his career, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound quarterback has rifled 4,873 yards passing and 60 touchdowns while rushing for 3,178 yards and 52 touchdowns.
Already the school’s all-time career leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completions, Neligh needs one more rushing touchdown to break the school career mark and three more to rewrite the single-season record.
Another victory would give the team a flawless 29-0 record with Neligh under center and cement his place in both program history and the conversation for the 2015 Mr. Football award.
“I’m fully aware there are exceptional athletes in this state, and there will be every year; but to me the Mr. Football award is about who produced the best that season,” Ralph said. “There are a couple of things that go into that. One, is your team playing for a state championship? Two, kind of similar to the Heisman, if you were to be taken off your team, could that team still function in the same manner?
“There’s no doubt in my mind we wouldn’t be the same team without him.”
A similar argument could be made for the defense this postseason. Allowing 11.4 points per game this season, which ranks them ninth in the state, the “Red Rage” has held three of its four playoff opponents to 14 points or less.
Captained by linebacker Joe Izbicki, the unit has made a living on shutting down the opposition’s stars with relentless tenacity.
Tonight, however, it could face it’s greatest challenge yet.
“Without question, they’ll be the best team we’ve ever faced. When you come out of the northern half of the state, you have to be incredibly good, and they have maybe one of the best offenses we’ve faced since I’ve been here,” Ralph said. “They have athletes all over and multiple Division-I kids. They have speed, size, quickness. They’re just really good.”
Led by quarterback Isaac Stiebeling, who stands 6-3 in Snider’s pistol offense, the Panthers have scored 27 touchdowns through the air. The Eastern Michigan commit has 2,657 yards passing and has rushed for 313 with another six touchdowns.
His primary target is 6-0 Mac Hippenhammer (844 yards and five touchdowns), while 5-9 David Turner leads the receiving corps with 14 scores. Malik Bramley, a 6-3 wideout, has 768 yards on the year and has garnered interest from some Mid-American Conference programs.
On the ground, Dominick Scott and Money Woods have combined for 1,939 yards rushing and 42 touchdowns, while the defense has held the opposition to 18.5 points per game.
“It’s kind of like looking in a mirror. We don’t have the Division-I athletes they do, but as far as how they operate and how they spread you out, it’s impressive,” Ralph said. “That’s going to be a huge challenge for us, trying to stop their athletes in space.”
As the lone finalist and state champion from a year ago to return to the state finals, the Dragons are ready.
It’s just another step toward history as the smallest school in 5A to reach the final game and potentially the first public school to repeat in two different classes since the Tournament Success Factor was introduced.
“It has become an expectation here that you do the work, you put the time in the offseason and you do what is expected of you because, come season time, we’re going to play for championships,” Ralph said. “Anything less than that is unacceptable. Anything less than your best is not good enough.”